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Davis, California

Saturday, October 16, 2021

A familiar face 

With each stroke, mold, flash or cut of linoleum, each piece of artwork on display in the current exhibition at The John Natsoulas Art Gallery is driven by creative minds empowering the art world through pure inspiration, history and activism.

Perhaps, in part, rare photographs of the recognized Mexican painter Frida Kahlo are what draw in spectators through the welcoming doors and neon signs of the gallery. But, speaking to John Natsoulas, founder and curator of the current exhibition at The John Natsoulas Art Gallery, his enthusiasm and passionate tenor prove that there is much more depth, history and passion behind Frida’s muse alone. It is the face behind the camera and each powerful incision driven into wood block-it is the inspiring hands and works of Emmy Lou Packard.

Through personal and professional associations with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Packard established an entity that was unique and unlike most artists of her time. Working under the wing of Rivera himself, Packard collaborated on many murals, such as the 1,606-square-foot fresco at the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco.

“Emmy Lou laid it down and got really aggressive,” Natsoulas said. “There weren’t a lot of women that were standing up for themselves during that time period. She could take a man on intellectually and verbally because she was a really eloquent speaker and oriented toward working. She did a lot of mosaics and murals on her own.”

Packard lived a long life rooted in political and environmental activism. She fought hard to create art that was driven by that same passion and aspiration to inspire change in a struggling world. Visible through her famous woodcut print entitled “Strawberry Pickers” and linoleum block print entitled “Sprout Picker” currently on display at the gallery, Packard fought for human rights and social equality by often depicting Agrarian farm workers in a fixed-hunched position picking crops under the blazing sun.

Walking through the John Natsoulas Gallery, unique and unusual editions of Packard’s and Rivera’s works reveal themselves. Behind a framed glass cover, what seems to be a torn and crumbled piece of rice paper with sketches is actually an original preliminary sketch and conceptualization for one of Rivera’s murals. In addition, Packard’s preliminary sketch entitled “sketch of dog” is especially interesting. These are the intermediate pieces that the audience rarely gets to see.

Down to her final days at the Hillhaven Convalescent Hospital in San Francisco, Packard left a lasting impact on Natsoulas, who personally knew Packard and would regularly visit to converse about her arduous journey of art and activism.

Upon agreement with Natsoulas, Packard would only exhibit her work following her death in 1998. Now, over a decade later, the public can experience Packard’s work in person. Packard’s artwork and legacy impacted Natsoulas on a strong and powerful stroke of inspiration.

“She changed me,” Natsoulas said. “She taught me to be more open to everyone.”

In addition to Packard’s artwork, illustrations and paintings by Robert and Maxon Crumb will be featured on the first floor of the gallery.

Notable for the new wave underground film about the life of Robert Crumb and his brothers entitled “Crumb,” the Crumb Brothers have made street art and comic illustrations accessible to the public.

The works of the Crumb Brothers envelop a completely different kind of aesthetic – visually and stylistically. The Crumb brothers utilize illustrations to take on a satirical view of society and the mainstream culture.

Admirable in his meticulous attention to details with ink on paper, Robert Crumb contributed to many underground comics, as well as well-known comics distributors such as Zap Comix and Mad Magazine. He also coined the phrase “keep on truckin’ ” in one of his one-page comics in 1968.

“This is a unique experience,” Natsoulas said. “Instead of going down, to say, the comics book store Bizarro World in downtown Davis and look at the comics there, students can see Robert Crumb’s illustrations up close and personal here.”

However, Maxon Crumb, who currently lives in the Bay Area and has remained relatively lesser known, has a painting currently on display at the gallery entitled “Reading the Cosmic Wheel.” The oil on canvas piece embraces much of the stylistic feelings of the Crumb Brothers but in a very different context. It is a piece that has multiple layers and fascinates the eyes for its visual aesthetics and different medium.

“The exhibition right now is a very unique one,” said Lexy Van Dyke, publicity director of the John Natsoulas Art Gallery. “I’m from the area and you don’t really get these chances very often to see these kinds of things-it’s like experiencing the context of art history up close and personal.”

In addition to these two exhibitions, visitors can also check out Arthur Gonazález’s exhibition entitled “The Art of Rejection” and charcoal drawings by Annie Murphy-Robinson. For more information, visit natsoulas.com.

UYEN CAO can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

Emmy Lou Packard: Works on Paper, and Photographs of Frida Kahlo; Robert and Maxon Crumb

Where: The John Natsoulas Art Gallery on 1st street

Exhibition Dates: July 7 – August 28

Open to the public, free

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